The look on Jeff Weltman’s face during the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery said a lot about how his rebuild was going to get started.
The Magic had a disastrous 2021 season where they fell hard in the standings and opted to rebuild. They traded off the three pillars of their franchise for much of the previous decade, detonating a team that topped off as a plucky first-round exit in five games.
It is easy to tear things down. It is easy to find a deal when you want to sell quality players. It is easy to part ways with a coach when directions are different.
The hard part — the part where Weltman now stakes his job in the next few years — is building everything back up. That is where the Magic have failed in the last decade. It is hard to find the right coach and to get all the way back up after getting knocked all the way down.
There is a treadmill of mediocrity but there is also a treadmill of awfulness. And it is easy to get trapped there.
When the Magic, who finished with the third-worst record in the league and a share of the top odds to win the NBA Draft Lottery in a loaded 2021 NBA Draft, popped up with the fifth pick, it felt like a punch to the gut.
But Weltman and his staff got to work. And that is the characteristic that embodied this Magic team more than anything else. They were just about the work to get better and making the most of the opportunity in front of them.
The first year of Jeff Weltman’s rebuild started with disaster, but the front office has done well to set the Orlando Magic up for future success.
That work is how a rebuild has to start. And Weltman created an atmosphere for it to thrive and begin.
There were opportunities missed, of course. But Weltman hired a new coach that began setting a culture and identity for his young team. He hit on a good draft pick — potentially two. His young team showed signs of what it could one day become. And, yes, the team got the ultimate reward in the end.
They took what fate gave them and made the most of it. They exited with Jalen Suggs, who many believed would be a clear-cut top-four pick, and then mined Franz Wagner with the eighth pick when everyone questioned if that was the right pick for this team (myself included).
There is no doubt a lot of work ahead, but it is easy to see the things that made sense for this team and the paths it could take forward.
Weltman’s job at this point is to set the team up for success. And it is hard not to see how his decisions did that.
The most consequential decision Jeff Weltman made this offseason was hiring Jamahl Mosley.
The Magic’s rebuild under Rob Hennigan went sideways because of the lack of organizational culture the team built off the court and on the court. Jacque Vaughn simply did not do a good job keeping the team focused on the long-term and pushing the team toward the long-term goal. And he certainly struggled once the team put winning expectations on them.
Even in a year everyone knew would have losses piled on, Mosley very clearly seemed to be moving the Magic in a forward direction. The team finished 19th in defensive rating by the end of the season and had a top-10 defense for the final quarter of the season.
Those are all building blocks.
But that decision seemed to pay off most in how the team finished the season. They all seemed to enjoy each other’s company and wanted to push each other more and more. That is certainly a sign the team did things the right way.
It is not a finish line, but it is a start. And Weltman deserves credit for selecting a coach to successfully navigate the team through it.
Weltman and his staff also continue to deserve recognition for their smart management of Orlando’s books.
The Magic are one of the few teams with cap room this offseason and that was a product of how well the team did in their reformation trades.
Orlando continues too to be creative with the contracts they hand out.
The big signing this offseason was an extension for Wendell Carter. After less than a half-season with him after last year’s trade deadline, the Magic saw enough in Carter to invest a four-year, $50-million contract.
After the season he had, that feels like a steal. Especially considering it is completely frontloaded, topping off at $13.1 million next season.
That will give the Magic more cap flexibility to re-sign players as they graduate from rookie contracts and the team looks to be aggressive when they feel like they are ready to speed things up.
As maligned as the Magic’s medical staff is, Weltman’s hires deserve credit for how quickly Markelle Fultz took to the court. He did not miss a beat in his return and stepped onto the court to make an immediate impact.
The patience to let Fultz return when he was ready and cross every “t” and dot every “i” is certainly frustrating for fans. But it is a workable strategy, especially in a season where winning does not matter.
As frustrating as the lack of updates on Jonathan Isaac were, the way Markelle Fultz returned should provide some faith that the Magic’s medical staff is waiting for that same moment to give him the all clear to return.
At the end of the day too, Weltman has differentiated himself a lot from previous executives for the Magic and other modern executives by emphasizing his players as people. Giving them that time to return on their schedule and staying supportive is a big plus that should pay dividends.
The when remains the question.
Player Grade: B
It is hard to give Jeff Weltman any grade but an incomplete after the first year of a rebuild. There is just so little pressure to perform and the metric that matters most — wins and losses — is not the end goal. Weltman’s project is just getting started.
To be sure, the hardest part for Weltman is still to come.
He must nail the first overall pick. The disappointment of the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery has given way to the extreme optimism of the 2022 NBA Draft Lottery. It really is a new world for this team. This will be the most consequential pick for the Magic and set the team for its future.
So too will it matter how Weltman spends the cap room he has created for this offseason. Figuring out who to spend it on or how to spend it while maintaining flexibility will be a challenge. All while trying to make this current team more competitive and developing on the right path.
These are not easy things to balance.
The things Weltman can — and should be — criticized for this season are ultimately inconsequential.
Should the Magic have traded Terrence Ross at the trade deadline? Probably. The Magic kept a high asking price and were not able to get it. They will see what happens this offseason.
Should the Magic have been more aggressive with two-way players? Probably. They only played more this year because of another excess of injuries. But it was a missed opportunity to keep good players in their orbit. Devin Cannady was a nice find nonetheless.
What were the Magic doing with their trade to acquire Bol Bol? Yeah, I do not have much of an answer there either.
But the big-picture items of this season? Weltman’s team hit those marks.
The team started to find its identity under a new coach. Young players bought into the vision of what the team is trying to become. And the Magic set themselves up well for the future.
But the work continues for the Magic. And that is ultimately where we will judge Weltman.